JOHANNESBURG – Uruguay has been here before. Just not within memory of any of its players.
The World Cup semifinal against the Netherlands marks a return to the soccer elite for one of South America’s most-decorated teams. Uruguay won the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but last reached a semifinal in 1970, when it finished in fourth place.
“It’s beautiful,” coach Oscar Tabarez said Saturday. “It’s difficult to take in what’s happened. We are just very happy.”
They had reason to be after a crazy finish to their quarterfinal victory over Ghana on Friday. A desperate Luis Suarez blocked a last-second header at the goal line with his arms and Ghana missed the ensuing penalty – leading to a shootout, which Uruguay won by a 4-2 margin.
Uruguay hosted the first World Cup, featuring 13 teams from Europe and the Americas, and lifted the trophy with a 4-2 win over Argentina in the final.
The Uruguayans didn’t enter the following two editions, held in Italy and France, but showed it was still the best on the planet in the 1950 tournament.
The winner of that World Cup held in Brazil was decided by a final group stage of four teams.
The hosts needed only a tie in the finale against Uruguay to secure the championship. Uruguay needed to win. Brazil was expected to cruise to glory at Maracana stadium.
What happened next has become part of soccer folklore.
Brazil took the lead after halftime, but Uruguay equalized, and then Alcides Ghiggia then squeezed a shot past Brazil goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa to win the match and silence more than 170,000 fans.
There were further semifinals for Uruguay in 1954 and 1970, but the team has failed to reach that stage five times since then.
“I don’t know whether this is the rebirth of Uruguayan football,” Tabarez said. “It could be as long as we don’t go another 20 years or so without getting to this stage.”